Armchair Analyst: On the radar for Week 20 of the MLS season

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LISTEN: With the MLS All-Star roster out, the USMNT scuffing their way through to the Gold Cup semifinal and MLS returning with plenty of wackiness, there's almost too much to talk about. Almost. Somehow the guys manage to pack it all in, plus interviews with Chicago Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic and Sporting KC's defensive phenom Erik Palmer-Brown. Subscribe now so you never miss a show! Download this episode!

MLS returned from the Gold Cup break with a vengeance on Wednesday night. Here's the entire slate of results, two of which were certifiably insane, one of which was ruinous, and one of which was a Supporters' Shield needle-mover:

RBNY hanging five on the streaking Quakes was kiiind of out of the blue, but also makes a bit of sense given how short-handed San Jose were (more on the Red Bulls in a minute), while Montreal's win over visiting Philly and Houston's point in Minnesota were probably chalk.

After that, though... how does Portland lose 4-1 at home to RSL? The Timbers continue to sink after their good start to the season, and have actually dropped under the playoff line in the Western Conference on points per game. Seattle are ahead of them by that metric following their win over D.C. in which they became the first team in MLS history to come back from three goals down and win.

The ruinous result was in LA. The Galaxy have now followed an eight-game unbeaten run with four straight losses, which includes a 1-6-3 record at StubHub Center. And guess what? Over the last 10 games, no Western Conference team has picked up more points than Vancouver's 17. They're now up to fourth in the West standings on points, and third on points per game. This despite having a negative goal differential.

MLS is weird.

The marquee show of the night happened in The Bronx, though. I still maintain that there's a group of six teams that have separated themselves from the pack, and so any time two of them meet it's a bloody big deal. That's what happened at Yankee Stadium as TFC played at NYCFC without five starters – and lost Sebastian Giovinco to injury before the half – and still came out with a point.

TFC's schedule the rest of the way is very friendly. They have eight home games and just six road games left, and only two of those away dates are against teams above the playoff line.

A 2-2 draw in mid-July isn't a reason to go out and start making wild guarantees, but in terms of zeroing in on potentially available hardware, it was a much more significant result than it first appears. The Reds have found a way to grind out points even when they shouldn't, and that's generally how trophies are won.


Scenario

In the middle of May the Red Bulls seemed dead in the water. Since then they've gone 6-2-2 across all competitions (which includes two US Open Cup wins in regulation and one on penalties) and have slowly both rediscovered and redefined themselves. That's included an occasional shift to a 5-4-1 lineup (that could also be described as a 3-3-3-1 with the two wingbacks and a lone d-mid – usually Felipe – operating on that middle line of "3").

Here's what that looks like via the network passing graphic, used creating Opta data:

Each circle represents the location of the corresponding player's aggregate touch, and the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes exchanged. The backline looks a mess because Connor Lade had to be subbed off just before halftime and that necessitated some changes elsewhere, but trust me: That's three center backs (Nos. 33, 55 & 15), two wingbacks, a lone d-mid, and then three roving attackers underneath forward Bradley Wright-Phillips.

The effect of this formation and lineup was to do two things: It provided width via the wingbacks, who covered a ton of ground; and it didn't add that width at the expense of Sacha Kljestan's positioning, or by depriving him of in-the-vicinity options. RBNY, over the past few years, have succeeded by making the game small – clever combos and runs in and around the area. As teams scouted them and took those options away, they struggled to effectively make the game big by bringing extra attackers forward and drawing defenders out to the touchline.

This allows them that luxury, though at the expense of the numbers game in central midfield. Felipe has to hold down that spot all by himself. When RBNY travel to Minnesota on Saturday (4 pm ET; ESPN & ESPN Deportes in the US | TSN2 in Canada), the Loons must swarm him and drag Kljestan deeper, breaking New York's shape.

I'll also be watching: Collin Martin, maybe? He had a useful 45 minutes against Houston on Wednesday, and is probably a bit more of a chance creator than the rest of the central midfielders on Minnesota's current roster. The Loons could use that, as their previously potent attack has been shut out four times in their last seven games.


Stressed Out

As mentioned above, the 'Caps have been the West's best over the last couple of months while Portland have been the West's worst. They'll meet on Sunday (6:30 pm ET; FS1 & FOX Deportes in the US | TSN1 in Canada) at BC Place in a game that feels like it could be turning point-ish.

If the Timbers get a win, the creeping panic and dread in Oregon will subside for the time being. If, however, the 'Caps keep doing what they've been doing, they will have started to put some distance between themselves and the chasing pack by using their games in hand the way they should be used.

There are so many injuries and absences – suspensions and international duty both – that it's not really possible to predict how the Timbers will play. But for Vancouver, expect a flat-ish 4-4-2 with inverted wingers and as much speed as possible.

It hasn't been complicated and they're not reinventing the game or anything, but they don't have to. They're just out there getting points.

I'll also be watching: Larrys Mabiala, who had a rude welcome to the league on Wednesday. His ability to organize a defense and keep the 'Caps' runners in front of him will go a long way toward determining the final score of this one.


One more thing to ponder:

Happy weekending, everybody.

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